Cloud computing

Is the cloud saving government money?

Clouds over the Capitol
Photo: Architect of the Capitol

The U.S. Government Accountability Office published a bullish report on the impact cloud services has had on federal government agency technology savings.

Thirteen of 16 agencies reviewed indicated they saved $291 million between 2014 and April 2019 from cloud services use. Because of a lack of reporting standards or guidance, “it is likely that agency-reported cloud spending and savings figures were underreported,” GAO wrote in its analysis.

Read more on the GAO blog.

Cloud.gov is FedRAMP Ready, moves feds closer to internally deploying tech projects faster

cloud.govIn a Hacker News post, the cloud.gov team shares that the platform has attained FedRAMP Ready status, moving it closer to operating as a full-service cloud provider for federal technology projects.

The team responsible for the project is hosting an open “Ask Me Anything” style question and answer session, and the post has already unearthed a number of conversations around hiring and the nuances of federal government operations related to cloud deployment.

From cloud.gov product lead Bret Mogilefsky:

I’m the product lead on cloud.gov… Thanks for noticing us! There are other Cloud Foundry deployments, but what makes cloud.gov special is the focus on ensuring federal agencies are actually able to use it. Federal compliance for a cloud service provider is a tough bar to clear, and without it most agencies are simply unable to take advantage of capabilities the rest of the world now takes for granted. That in turn impedes improvements in the many services the government has to offer. We’ve just reached the “FedRAMP Ready” status, which is a signifier of confidence that cloud.gov will make it through the exhaustive auditing process to come. Best of all, everything were doing is open source, including all the compliance work, so others will be able to follow in our footsteps. AMA!

Once cloud.gov achieves full FedRAMP status, coupled with the internal open source and agile/DevOps development environment they’ve created, the opportunities for 18F to help agencies quickly and fully deploy projects are endless.

“18F is going to be a model Cloud Service Provider (CSP) in the federal space,” Mogilefsky said in a May interview with Cloud Foundry. “Cloud.gov is only part of the equation.”

Have questions or comments for the cloud.gov team? Ask them anything.

Why Cloud.gov is a big deal

Source: Cloud.gov

Source: Cloud.gov

Enabling internal government tech shops to quickly stand up applications in a secure testing environment is fundamental to quick prototyping, and 18F’s new Cloud.gov is a major step in realizing ultimate IT flexibility.

I reached out to GovReady founder Greg Elin who is working on “making FISMA a platform instead of paperwork,” and he replied with the following comments that are better than anything I could say on the subject:

18F’s Cloud.gov is a tectonic shift in government IT because it replaces policy with platform. Cloud.gov components accelerate the much needed replacement of PDF-based guidance with running code. It’s the difference between a book about Javascript and just using jQuery.

For most of the past 20 years, the CIO Council, NIST, and most agency IT shops have focused on policies and procedures to provide contractual requirements for vendors doing the work. That’s not criticizing anyone, it’s how the system was set up. The CIO Council’s authority is to provide recommendations–not write code. NIST’s mission is to advance measurement science and standards development–not build platforms.

Take the CIO Council’s enterprise architecture efforts or NIST’s Risk Management Framework as examples. They provide incredibly rich, comprehensive expert guidance distributed in documents. Unfortunately, contracts, contractors and projects implement the guidance differently enough that interoperability and reusability rarely occurs between bureaus or across agencies. In contrast, over the past decade in the private sector and on the Internet, knowledge has become immediately actionable via open source, APIs and GitHub repos. It’s a golden era of shared solutions powered by StackOverflows and code snippets, package managers and Docker containers.

If 18F’s Cloud.gov succeeds at encompassing official policies and regulations into loosely coupled running code, then contracts are easier to write, vendors aren’t constantly reinventing things, and projects happen faster.

Learn more about Cloud.gov.

Open source-based PaaS provider BlackMesh gets FedRAMP green light

BlackMeshA big win for government open source advocates, platform as a service provider BlackMesh has achieved Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program compliance through its SecureCloud offering.

The company’s authority to operate, granted in May, was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The agency has worked with BlackMesh since 2010. According to the company, the process took nearly a year, starting in May 2014 with official authorization granted in April.

BlackMesh provides cloud services based on OpenStack and OpenShift.

FedRAMP is the federal government’s program aimed at making it easier for agencies to adopt cloud services under the “do once, use many times” mantra. Once cloud vendors have met FedRAMP’s security protocol, any agency can quickly procure the services safely knowing they meet federal standards.

BlackMesh was founded in 2003 and is headquartered in Ashburn, Va., with U.S. servers located in Reston and Las Vegas.

Is California forcing state agencies under one private cloud?

Golden Gate Bridge (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Golden Gate Bridge (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Update: A DGS representative notified us that these restrictions will be lifted “ballpark in the next few months” once the state has updated its cloud computing terms and conditions policy, which is currently under review.

The California Department of General Services is issuing a list of stipulations to cloud computing vendors that forces them into an agreement to not sell their services to state agencies, according to a document obtained by GovFresh.

The document, titled “Acceptance of Terms Related to Cloud Computing Solutions Under the CMAS [California Multiple Award Schedules] Program,” outlines four stipulations that, if not adhered to, “may result in contract termination.”

Those stipulations include:

  1. CMAS contractor guarantees that it will not sell cloud products or services to California State agencies through the CMAS program.
  2. CMAS contractor agrees not to process California State agencies’ CMAS purchase orders that include cloud computing software and/or vendor related services and to alert the CMAS Program administrators when such an order has been received.
  3. CMAS contractor agrees to refund in full any payments resulting from a sale of a cloud product or service to California State agencies under a CMAS contract whether or not cloud products or services are purchased willfully or inadvertently.
  4. Contractor’s non-compliance regarding the sale of cloud products or services may result in contract termination.

Attempts to obtain comments from DGS and the California Technology Agency remain unanswered.

California is currently developing its own private cloud, called CalCloud, that is expected to launch in early 2014.

“California is in the cloud,” California Chief Information Officer Carlos Ramos said Monday at a government technology and innovation event hosted by TechWire. “We’re moving into the cloud very rapidly, but we do have to move a little bit gingerly.”

Prior to Ramos’ talk at the same event, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom was critical of the state’s progress and unwillingness to pursue innovative approaches to technology, especially the cloud.

“By 2016, it’s estimated that the bulk of IT spending in business will be on cloud computing platforms and applications, according to the IDC Worldwide and Regional Public IT Cloud Services forecast,” wrote Newsom recently on Huffington Post. “Yet many in California government still resist cloud computing even as the federal government and states including Colorado adopt cloud-first priorities.”

How Palo Alto is leading the digital city movement

[audio:https://govfresh.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/jonathanreichental.mp3|titles=How Palo Alto is leading the digital city movement]

Jonathan Reichental

Palo Alto, Calif., Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental discusses his “digital city” vision, including how he leveraged the local developer community to help build city applications, bringing a “hacker ethic” to bureaucracy and the importance of supportive leaders in managing IT and cultural change. Reichental previously spent his entire career in the private sector and just this December took his first government job as Palo Alto’s first CIO.

Time for government to plug into one platform?

In a new blog post, Gartner’s Andrea Di Maio asks if it’s time to pull the plug on government Websites? Di Maio cites one Japanese city’s decision to migrate its online presence to Facebook as an example of an outside-the-box approach to government Web operations.

One comment from ‘Carolyn’ makes a strong case why the Facebook approach is short-sighted:

Believe it or not, some people trust Facebook even less than they trust government. Why make civic participation dependent on surrendering portions of your privacy to a corporation that will monetize it? I don’t want a crowdsourced opinion on when my garbage will be collected. I don’t want to have to sift through the mass of information out there on the web to find the proper permit application, or tax form for my business. And I don’t want corporate interests controlling my access to my government.

Related to this, one of my favorite quotes about Facebook comes from blogger Jason Kottke (2007):

As it happens, we already have a platform on which anyone can communicate and collaborate with anyone else, individuals and companies can develop applications which can interoperate with one another through open and freely available tools, protocols, and interfaces. It’s called the internet and it’s more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007. Eventually, someone will come along and turn Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.

Di Maio’s general point is that when government builds Websites they “almost inevitably fail to model access the way people do expect or need it.” But just because this has been the case to date, doesn’t mean public sector IT should transition its entire online operations to the trendiest social network.

It’s time for government to radically reconsider its online service offering to citizens with a more sustainable approach.

Centralizing government Websites into one portal is something I’ve advocated for years (see here and here). In fact, the White House is exploring this and other options around improving the .gov ecosystem (they addressed my question specifically on this subject at a White House ‘Open for Questions’ live chat here).

If government really wants to focus on IT efficiency and cost-savings, CIOs and CTOs need to construct a more focused, organic strategy that includes the following:

  • Centralize your Web ecosystem into a single CMS and uniform brand/theme
  • Develop using open source software.
  • Create an open data portal.
  • Leverage APIs.
  • Migrate as much to the cloud as possible.
  • Create topic-based content and ensure distribution via RSS, email and all social media means available.
  • Develop a mobile strategy based on accessing the data above and empowering external, entrepreneurial ventures to compete in a free market to provide the best services (i.e., build less apps in-house).

The above list is by no means comprehensive and perhaps one day I’ll have more time to elaborate. It is, however, a general, sustainable strategy for addressing pubic sector budgeting constraints given the current economic conditions. Some or all of this could be done in-house or out-sourced. If the latter, it needs to be highly extensible and portable.

I’m all for radical re-working and thinking different, but don’t let fiscal uncertainty or short-term instability drive irrational IT decision-making, especially when it comes to public services and citizen privacy.

Build an ‘open source value creation model’ for your agency

Great FedTalks presentation from David Dejewski of the Department of Defense Business Transformation Agency where he discusses Web 2.0, MilSuite including MilBook, MilWiki, MilBlog and MilTube. Dejewski talks about building a ‘Web 2.0 deployment toolbox,’ get the technical and security foundation down and build an ‘open source value creation model.’

Best points relates his approach to development:

  • It takes about 4 hours to build an app
  • Open source apps are free
  • Deployment is instantaneous / Scalable
  • Prototypes are a thing of the past
  • Development cycles are now simply deployments
  • XML published data is platform agnostic

Best quote:

‘These technologies, these obstacles are going away. We can now for the first time in history celebrate the fact that technology is finally mature enough to start providing you a return on investment. The limitations that we once faced in terms of hardware and speed and all that, they’re all melting away with the advent of Web 2.0, because you’re not hosting it anymore. The stuff is being hosted somewhere else in the cloud. Your whole mission with Web 2.0 … once you get the platform out there, is to focus on value. Take the whole discussion of hardware out of your mind. Focus on value creation.’

Full video here:

Introducing GovFresh Voice

One of the more striking ironies of the Gov 2.0 movement is that despite the development of scores of new technologies, protocols, platforms and networks for enabling sophisticated interactions between citizens and their governments, a large number of people prefer to interact with their government the way they have for a long time – using the telephone.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that many citizens are looking to new channels when communicating with government:

“Citizen interactions with government are moving beyond the website. Nearly one third (31%) of online adults use online platforms such as blogs, social networking sites, email, online video or text messaging to get government information.”

But the same study also found that the granddaddy of communication technologies (the plain old telephone) still reigns supreme as the method for citizens to contact government:

“As we found in our last survey of e-government in August 2003, telephone contact is the overall most preferred contact method when people have a problem, question or task involving the government. Currently, 35% of Americans say they prefer using the telephone in these circumstances, a figure that is relatively unchanged from the 38% who said so in 2003.”

Even those that are rich in broadband Internet access seem to prefer to use the phone to contact government:

“…it is notable that the telephone remains relatively popular even among the technologically proficient, as one-third of home broadband (32%) and wireless Internet users (32%) say that the telephone is their favorite means of contact when they need to get in touch with government.”

This is not a new finding, and I have written about it many times before.

What is new are the opportunities that governments now have to leverage the ordinary telephone (and the sophisticated new ones as well) to provide improved customer service, and to enable citizens to proactively report issues in their community. A host of platforms and tools now exists that have significantly lowered the barrier to entry for smaller governments to build sophisticated communication applications.

These platforms are enormously more powerful than they were just a few years ago. With the tools that are now available to governments, its relatively easy to build sophisticated applications that serve multiple communications channels (phone, instant messaging, text messaging, and even social networks like Twitter) from a single code base. It’s never been easier or less expensive to build telephone and communication applications. Ever!

As part of the Manor.GovFresh event that will be taking place in Manor, Texas next week participants will be giving a “Gov 2.0 Makeover” to a small Texas municipality. As part of this makeover, I’m working with a company called Tropo to build a sophisticated cloud-based telephony system for De Leon Texas.

The GovFresh Voice project (which will run on the Tropo platform) will enable De Leon – as well as other towns and cities – to leverage the latest in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), speech recognition and cloud-based telephony. It leverages all of the functionality of the most sophisticated and powerful cloud telephony platform to empower a small municipal government to fully exploit a preferred communication channel to interact with its citizens.

The GovFresh Voice project is open source – the code is available on GitHub – can run on a commodity web server, is easily configurable and customizable, and requires no up front investment in expensive or sophisticated hardware. It’s cloud-based telephony at its simplest and most powerful.

The hope is to enable De Leon to use this new application and to show other towns what can be done with it. Ultimately, the plan is to donate the code for GovFresh Voice to the new Civic Commons project so that other municipalities can make use of it.

If this project sounds like something your town might like to use, or if you’d like to learn more about how telephones and other communication devices can be used to improve government service delivery, you should consider joining us for the Manor.GovFresh event.

Applying new technologies to old problems is part of what Gov 2.0 is about. Telephony might seem old school, but there has never been more opportunity than right now to exploit it cheaply and efficiently to improve communications between governments and their citizens.

Top 7 ‘Minds in the Cloud’ cloud computing videos

FedScoop recently wrapped up its Minds in the Cloud video series. MITC featured interviews with 23 government and industry leaders discussing the benefits, challenges and future of cloud computing. Here’s my seven favorite (#1 being US Navy SCSC CIO Susan Hess).

US Navy SCSC CIO Susan Hess:

U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra:

Linda Cureton, NASA CIO

U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra:

Interior Department CIO Sonny Bhagowalia:

FCC, Chief Data Officer, Greg Elin:

NASA Ames Research Center CIO Chris Kemp: